Discover more from Hot Takes
The plague of over-optimization
There are pathological levels of optimization in modernity, much of it makes no sense, and the last few percent isn't even worth it. You're a human, not an insect...
“Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.”
– Lin Yutang
It feels like the highest calling of many in modernity is personal optimization. And while it’s definitely worthwhile in certain areas (such as removing a long commute) it can easily be something with diminishing returns in others.
This desire for efficiency and productivity has led to a trend I see very visibly of over-optimization, where individuals strive for maximum output in every aspect of their lives. It’s become borderline religious/cult-like and replaced traditional religion for many. And while optimization is obviously beneficial, pushing it to extremes has unintended consequences. It’s so seeped into the culture you see it on display proudly and publicly on LinkedIn, for example (my friend Trung wrote about it here). People wear it with a badge of honor, when in reality they are displaying pathology and a lack of balance and self-awareness. I honestly wouldn’t hire many of these people as I think they’re lost on some important dimensions. Certainly not creative or self-aware, and so ironically AI can probably already do most of their work.
Here’s a few examples of over-optimization that have become increasingly prevalent. Some might disagree with me, and of course it all might not be too bad. But taken together a society worshipping at the alter of over-optimization (without even understanding why) is certainly not healthy. Much of it ultimately is self-defeating and not even productive for any real outcome other than making the individual feel they are doing something positive (while likely accomplishing the opposite).
Podcast listening at amplified speed
With the wealth of information available through podcasts, some people have adopted the habit of listening at 1.5x, double speed or higher to ‘consume more content’ in less time. This practice sacrifices the essence of the conversation, reducing it to rushed and incomprehensible chatter. The intent to absorb more, faster comes at the cost of losing the depth, emotion and understanding offered at normal speed. The creators would have spoken faster if it needed to be said faster. I wonder, do these people listen to music at 2x, too? It would follow the same logic.
Podcasts are the opposite of cable news, which if you haven’t de-conditioned yourself from, start there. If you want information faster, pick up a book or the text equivalent which you can take in at your own pace. I think anyone is deluding themselves to believe this is an ‘intelligence’ thing, as we wrote in a previous post, allowing time to process information is necessary for all. You evolved to listen to the spoken word at a human pace. There’s no way you’re actually encoding or integrating it best any other way.
Excessive supplement and vitamin intake
In pursuit of better health and vitality, many now take an excessive number of vitamins and supplements they were shilled online. While some vitamins as directed by an MD post-diagnostic are important, consuming an excess via self-diagnosis you ‘think’ you need can easily lead to adverse effects. Overloading the body with unnecessary pills is not magically going to result in additional health benefits and might even cause harm such as liver toxicity. Do you simply eat well, get exercise and not drink alcohol or take drugs? It seems pretty clear if one did those things, that’s most of the way there and now you don’t have to try to paper over bad habits with supplements. Anyone taking a self-directed pig-trough of pills daily is for certain over-optimizing. I think they are unconsciously internalizing some aspect of modernity and consumer culture that ‘doing more things is always good’ when in many areas that’s not the case at all.
Micro-scheduling every moment
Calendaring every minute of the workday is an attempt to optimize time management. However, this level of rigidity is most certainly counterproductive. It leaves no room for flexibility, creativity, or dealing with unexpected challenges that might arise. It’s mostly ‘performative work.’ Also, over-structuring one's time for sure leads to stress and a lack of adaptability. If your calendar looks like a game of Tetris, you probably need to start over — except for something like sales roles, unsure how this signals anything other than a need to project importance very likely a lack of proper self-direction. Somewhat related to this, as I wrote on previously, working absurd hours is not a badge of honor.
Extreme diet and fitness regimens
Many people now appear to follow overly strict diets or workout routines in the pursuit of a perfect physique. While a healthy lifestyle is of course important, extreme dieting or exercising beyond normal limits can lead to physical and mental health issues. The last few % is probably not worth it here, and over-optimizing in this context might even result in nutritional deficiencies or overuse injuries. Your north star here should be balance.
There’s a ton of fancy new financial products and it’s tempting to try to do creative things with your money or hedge in different ways. But truthfully, for those of us who aren’t in the absolute top % of net worth, none of this makes any sense. Buy Vanguard and chill. Other than a small amount of ‘play money’ you want to use to understand markets, which is fine, don’t try to look for shortcuts with your actual savings. To quote Charlie Munger in a recent WSJ interview:
Most people probably shouldn’t do anything other than have index funds…. That is a perfectly rational thing to do for somebody who just doesn’t want to think much about it and has no reason to think he has any advantage as a stock picker. Why should he try and pick his own stocks? He doesn’t design his own electric motors and his egg beater.
Amphetamine/stimulant usage (and other attempts at brain over-optimization)
Great video illustration of amphetamine usage and why you would be wise to never use them, and perhaps some persuasion to get help to get off them before it’s too late.
The main problem with amphetamine (Adderall) use is you're not actually getting an advantage for creative/exponential work. You're just more confident/higher energy (and honestly, probably prone to worse decisions). We saw the downfall of SBF, a heavy amphetamine user here and someone who embodies ‘pleasure maximalization’ which couldn’t be a more misguided way to live. Amphetamines are neurotoxic and ultimately just result in pain and despondency. There are no free neurochem lunches, and usage of this drug class is borrowing against dopaminergic futures while forcing downregulation of key neurochemical production of what you need for sustainable energy and motivation, while risking later in life dementia. Plenty of research here, but it's fairly clear to me — you can talk to neurologist friend who isn't biased if you like. It does appear we went the wrong direction and learned nothing from previous American excess with the current script levels at a staggering ~41M. Amphetamines are a Faustian bargain. None of this is worth it and falls into the over-optimization camp. I also think it’s extraordinarily evil to give kids speed simply because they cannot sit still and function within the misguided, factory-like academic structures producing obese and depressed/anxious children. Drugs are not the solution, particularly stimulants. We should rethink education not try to shoehorn humanity into a dated, industrial-economy version of it.
Many actively try to game algorithms on social media or search engines. This might involve keyword stuffing in articles, clickbait titles, or other strategies to rank higher or gain more short term attention. While these tactics might provide short-term gains, they will compromise authenticity and credibility in the long run. Amateur marketers do this because they don’t understand why you wouldn’t spam people, just like amateur investors try to win at day trading. Pros know better. Do you really want to be left holding the bag of the subprime attention bubble? Because that ends at 0.
Obsession over productivity tools
In an effort to maximize productivity, many now rely on a sprawling, baroque empire of of productivity tools and apps. But constantly switching between tools or using too many at once can lead to cognitive overload and reduced efficiency. An over-reliance on tools might actually hinder genuine focus and productivity. And anyway, if you can’t be productive with the simplest of tools (spreadsheet or word doc and your brain) all the fancy software in the world isn’t going to help anything. Amateurs obsess over tools, pros over mastery.
Desire for AI to take over every aspect of life
As I wrote in a previous post on AI (with some caveats) this is nihilism:
Oh, the poor souls who arrive in an empty white room with no interests or motivation left but to optimize. Optimize what? For whom? To what end? Why? As they have no idea (their answer is everything) we will say a prayer for them, if that is the shore in which future human consciousness finds itself trapped.
There comes a point where you are basically opting out of your own life to let machines do everything for you. Again I mentioned caveats, AI to remove busywork and repetitive, banal tasks is great. AI to do all your thinking for you is self-defeating. Now you’re not even in control.
The pursuit of optimization in various aspects of life is understandable, and often commendable. But the relentless desire to squeeze every scrap of productivity or efficiency from each moment has unintended consequences, and is a robotic way to live. I’m still unsure why anyone would want to take inspiration for life from insects. I also think it’s a clear symptom of why so many people are unhappy in the modern world. Balancing optimization with flexibility, spontaneity, and an appreciation for the present moment is key to a holistic and sustainable life. And isn’t that what we should be aiming for? Not all of it might be ‘efficient,’ but that’s the point.
Bonus video: I found a great video essay on the notion of ‘hurry sickness’ which I think over-optimizers suffer from. I’d highly recommend watching it as it shares some fun historic examples of why efficiency isn’t always best through architecture and city planning. You can think of other areas this applies. Worth the time.
Hot Takes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.